Perhaps it’s the classic brownstone exterior. Maybe it’s the old city street, or the nearby University of Pennsylvania campus with its charming greens, academic buildings, and bustling scene.
Whatever the ingredients, it’s a sensory mix that gives the White Dog Café, in Philadelphia’s University City District, a quietly reassuring feel that comes from a certain Old World patina. The White Dog sits in row of vintage townhouses, most of which are no longer residential, but retrofitted for retail, offices, and dining.
There’s nothing overtly upscale about this café. It has a warm, woody, pub-like interior, with a bar in the front room and an airy, high-ceilinged dining room at the rear, along with an adjoining, more intimate space. But the White Dog’s most outstanding feature is the great wholesome and carefully prepared food it serves.
Both the name and the stone façade come from another incarnation. In the second half of the 1800s, the building served as a parlor for a colorful Russian émigré intellectual and writer known as Madame Helena Blavatsky, who created the Theosophical Society, an organization that promoted universal brotherhood and spiritualism.
While living in the townhouse, Blavatsky became gravely ill. She consulted doctors, and a surgeon recommended amputating a leg.
But Blavatsky refused, and made a remarkable and speedy recovery that she attributed to a white dog that slept on her bad leg every night until she was well. Thus, the name.
Today’s White Dog (the restaurant) is owned by Judy Wicks, a social activist who painstakingly uses only sustainable, locally grown and raised products — vegetables, meat, and fish — on the restaurant menu. Wicks started a sustainable business group in Philadelphia, and has spearheaded efforts to feed and house the poor.
I have eaten at the White Dog eight or 10 times this year, and it’s one of those rare places to which I always want to return because its simple American menu is constantly changing according to what’s available locally. It’s always new and interesting.
The menu is pure American and includes an appetizing array. The range of offerings includes steamed mussels; crab cakes with rémoulade and micro greens; crispy duck with mustard greens and braised vegetable; a savory roasted farm chicken; a simple roast leg of lamb earlier in the year; and a mouthwatering strip steak with beer-batter onion rings more recently. All are made using ingredients from organic farms and fisheries.
Wicks will be in Ann Arbor on Nov. 6 as the featured speaker at a dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, an event held in support of the nonprofit Avalon Housing project for affordable living, which the Zingerman’s foundation helps. Tickets are $250 each. Information: avalonhousing.org.